English soccer fans are smitten with a bearded, 25-year-old Egyptian man named Mohamed. The avowed Muslim’s golden feet have lifted Liverpool Football Club to European soccer’s grandest stage: the Champions League final.
After a circuitous and arduous journey that began in a poor village in the Nile Delta, Mohamed Salah’s reign as the English Premier League’s “Egyptian King” is in full swing. He recently set a Premier League record for the most goals ever scored in a 38-game Premier League season and, has seemingly bagged player of the year awards from fans, the Professional Footballers’ Association and the Football Writers’ Association. At least for this season, Salah’s name is being uttered in the same breath as perennial superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. As English soccer great Steven Gerrard said, “Without a shadow of doubt he’s the best player on the planet right now.”
But the mesmeric goals and accolades may be footnotes in what Mohamed Salah’s singular story represents. At a time when Britain and Europe are riven by Islamophobia and questions over immigration and national identity, Salah’s status as a Muslim and North African who openly and unapologetically expresses his faith on the soccer field sends a remarkable message.
The mesmeric goals and accolades may be footnotes in what Mohamed Salah’s singular story represents.
Not surprisingly, in his native Egypt, Salah is more beloved than any Marvel superhero. In the city of Cairo, his likeness has become omnipresent. Due to write-in votes, he was even reportedly a runner-up in the country’s recent presidential election. A youth, anti-drug campaign video in which he featured resulted in a massive increase in calls to the national drug rehabilitation hotline. Most heartening are the stories of Salah’s generous acts of charity.
Yet outside of his homeland, Salah’s outward profession of his identity is not just tolerated but heartily celebrated by a legion of disparate fans in Europe and across the Muslim world. He thus wields sizable social and cultural influence in a fissured society.
It is difficult to separate Islam from Mohamed Salah the footballer. The bearded forwardcan be seen with his hands visibly cupped in prayer prior to games. After scoring, he runs towards the roaring Liverpool fans in his vicinity, hugs his teammates and finally retreats back to the field for a personal moment of reflection. He then points to the sky and kneels down to perform sujood, the Islamic act of prostration.
Asif Majid of The Conversation writes of the significance of these celebrations. “In Islamic thought, sujood is perceived as the physically lowest, but spiritually highest, position a person can take.” For Salah, who is the only high-profile Muslim player to regularly prostrate himself on the soccer field, this humble act is his “specific expression of gratitude for goals scored.”
And as the goals have mounted, so have the sujoods. In the process, the Liverpool faithful have not only acknowledged Salah’s religion, but they have centered their support for the Egyptian phenom around it.
For example, fans have adapted the tune of an English song called “Good Enough” for a Salah chant. It goes: “Mo Salah-la la la la la/If he’s good enough for you, he’s good enough for me/If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too.”
“Sitting in a mosque, that’s where I wanna be,” the chant continues.
While the song was created in Liverpool’s Anfield stadium, it has gone viral. As Paul Machin, a British sports host, notes, "what it's led to is a bunch of lads, who are from all kinds of different denominations and backgrounds and ages and, you know, and social classes, whatever, and basically singing about, you know, it's good enough for me, and I'll be a Muslim, too.”
Salah is not the first Muslim player to have made it to the highest levels of European soccer, but his ascendance is unlike any to come before him.
Salah is not the first Muslim player to have made it to the highest levels of European soccer, but his ascendance is unlike any to come before him. According to Piara Powar, the executive director of FARE Network, a London-based nonprofit that analyzes discrimination in soccer, this kind of embrace is unprecedented. “This is the first time I’ve seen such an exuberant, overt, positive appreciation that includes [a player’s] religion.”
At the same time, Salah’s rise has not happened inside of a vacuum.Two of the biggest issues undergirding support for far-right populists in Europe and the United States are Islamist terrorism and the surge of predominantly Muslim refugees fleeing war-ravaged Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, a clear animus towards Muslims has solidified in the nativist sentiment that white European people are facing an existential threat.
Critical race theorist Khaled Beydoun defines Islamophobia as “the presumption that Islam is violent, inassimilable, and prone to terrorism.” It is further divided into private Islamophobia and structural Islamophobia.
In the United Kingdom and elsewhere, a clear animus towards Muslims has solidified in the nativist sentiment that white European people are facing an existential threat.
Private Islamophobia, which gets the overwhelming amount of media coverage, looks mostly at the private acts of individuals, such as hate crimes and personal bias. Structural Islamophobia relates to the official state structures, laws, policies and rhetoric that promote the premise that Muslim identity is correlative with terrorism. Structural Islamophobia encourages private Islamophobia as it communicates suspicion of Muslims to the mass public.
Mohamed Salah, with his highly visible symbols of faith, has the ability to challenge some of this private Islamophobia while also mitigating the influence of structural Islamophobia on individuals. Their champion on the soccer field, Salah is living, breathing proof of the multilayered identity possessed by so many Muslims in Britain and indeed around the world. Unapologetically, he compels fans to reckon with this reality.
As an affable and unassuming superstar who donates generously and engages with fans on the field, in the community and on social media, Salah further counters the trope of young Muslim men being insular and awkwardly conservative. He is a human rebuttal to the rhetoric peddled by politicians and the conservative media. This is notable especially because studies have shown that a person who knows a Muslim is more likely to express a positive opinion about Muslims as a group. Reports that Salah has already stirred greater curiosity and understanding about Islam amongst non-Muslims are consistent with this.
As an affable and unassuming superstar who donates generously and engages with fans on the field, Salah counters the trope of young Muslim men being insular and awkwardly conservative.
“He is someone who embodies Islam’s values and wears his faith on his sleeve. He has a likability. He is the hero of the team,” noted Miqdaad Versi, the assistant secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain. “He is not the solution to Islamophobia, but he can play a major role.”
But most important may be the Muslim youth and young men who see themselves in Mohamed Salah. His success is a beacon of hope for the disenchanted young men and children who sometimes hide their Muslim identities out of fear and insecurity. It is far easier to embrace your complex, hyphenated self if there is someone to relate to. As Rabiya Limbada shares for BBC, “So when I catch my six-year-old standing in front of a mirror trying to pick at tiny baby hairs on his chin and proclaim he too has a beard now just like Salah, my heart soars.”
And so, as Mohamed Salah prepares to take the pitch in the Champions League final, fans around the world will be cheering him on. For them, each Salah goal is yet another blow against an opponent far greater than even Europe’s most decorated team, Real Madrid.